Houston Texans at Kansas City Chiefs: Defensive rise gives Andy Reid complete team
Watch the Chiefs host the Texans in their Divisional Round clash live on Sky Sports Action (407) on Sunday; kickoff is 8.05pm
By Cameron Hogwood - @CameronHogwood
Last Updated: 12/01/20 6:40pm
"I can't say enough about the growth of our defense," admitted Kansas City Chiefs head coach Andy Reid in December.
The Chiefs came out of last year's AFC Championship game defeat to the New England Patriots knowing they needed to improve on defense.
It didn't have to be perfect nor did it need to evolve into one of the NFL's most potent. It just needed to be effective enough and disruptive enough to back up the ingenuity of Patrick Mahomes heading into the post-season.
Fast forward to Divisional Weekend and the AFC West champions will feel they have a unit performing at the standards required of a Super Bowl contender.
A drastic transformation over the course of the season has now given Reid perhaps the most complete team of his Chiefs tenure as he looks to improve on his 2-5 record in the playoffs with the organisation.
What's happened since last Texans meeting?
The simple answer? The Chiefs have learned. A lot.
A suspect defense went under the scope in Week Six as the Chiefs were beaten 31-24 by the Houston Texans in a game where they not only gave up 280 passing yards, but also 192 yards on the ground along with three rushing touchdowns.
It continued a choppy adjustment to new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo's scheme, with the Chiefs allowing at least 180 yards rushing in four of their first six games as well as 129 against the Oakland Raiders in Week Two.
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In the same period they also allowed 1,466 receiving yards and 144 total points amid a major learning curve for many of the players.
That defeat to the Texans would prove a turning point as the Chiefs restricted two of their next three opponents to under 100 rushing yards, the Green Bay Packers being the exception with just 118 in a game when Aaron Rodgers was sacked five times.
From Week 10 to Week 17 the Chiefs allowed the fourth-lowest completion percentage in the league at 57.36 per cent and the fourth-fewest yards per attempt.
They were also tied-first for fewest passing touchdowns allowed with seven in that stretch, as well leading the league with 10 interceptions alongside five other teams.
Besides holding three of their final seven opponents to below 100 yards on the ground, they also conceded fewer than 20 total points in five of their last six games including three of under 10 yards.
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Speaking to ESPN at the end of December, Spagnuolo told: "We talked a lot about trust. We started talking about 'Trust our way to improvement,' which is the way we put it, the way the coaches fed it to the guys.
"To the guys' credit, they embraced it."
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Mathieu has been as influential as the Chiefs could have wished for after his arrival in free agency on a three-year, $42m contract.
The former Texans safety has asserted himself as a leader under Spagnuolo, backed up by his increased production over the second half of the regular season.
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He registered 33 tackles, one sack, three interceptions and seven pass defenses across his last six games as a driving force behind the Chiefs' defensive resurgence.
Such has been his impact that the Chiefs have been able to build on his conventional safety role by lining him up in the slot on occasion as well as at linebacker, drawing on his hard-hitting and instinctive approach in the secondary.
"He's the glue," said Spagnuolo.
Clark has similarly improved as the season has progressed, with the defensive end racking up seven sacks in his last eight games having managed just one in his first eight games.
Across from him Chris Jones has mustered six sacks in his last seven after just three in his opening six games.
Claiming a 37-year-old Terrell Suggs off waivers has meanwhile given the Chiefs another valuable veteran presence in the locker room, in addition to cushioning the blow of losing Alex Okafor and Emmanuel Ogbah to injury.
Their next challenge
The Week Six defeat to the Texans saw Watson finish with 30 of 42 for 280 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions, while running back Carlos Hyde had 116 yards and one touchdown from his 26 carries.
For the Buffalo Bills to build a 16-0 lead, sack Watson seven times in their Wild Card matchup and still fail to come out on top underlined everything you need to know about the Texans quarterback.
Houston were out-coached, out-thought and out-manoeuvred for much of the contest last week, before being rescued by some second-half and overtime magic from the 24-year-old.
He will test every aspect of the Chiefs defense, whether it be the ability to make tackles stick or the secondary's concentration and awareness to follow back-up routes from Houston receivers looking to get open when Watson is forced to scramble.
The Chiefs failed to sack Watson earlier in the regular season, but there will no doubt be a confidence that their improved rush is capable of breaching what is still an unconvincing Texans offensive line.
Having struggled to stop him earlier this season, thwarting the between-the-tackle bustle of Hyde will be another main focus.
As will containing DeAndre Hopkins as Watson's No 1 target attempts to build on his six catches for 90 yards against the Bills, who had been excellent in keeping him out of the game in the first half.
The Texans have their fair share of weapons on offense, particularly if Will Fuller can get himself fit, but the job for the Chiefs' defense starts with stopping Watson.
Watch every game of the Divisional Round on Sky Sports Action (407) as playoff coverage begins on Saturday at 9pm with the Minnesota Vikings at San Francisco 49ers; Sunday's action kicks off with the Houston Texans at Kansas City Chiefs on air from 7.30pm.